Patriots and Tyrants - Marion Lansing

Frederick Barbarossa and the Lombard Cities

This story brings us back to Italy. The Lombards were the last barbarians, you remember, to come over the Alps into Italy, and they took the beautiful northern cities, while the people fled across the water to the islands of Venice. Then they lived in these cities, rebuilding them, and governing all northern Italy, and trying to get Venice into their power. Those same cities were taken by Charlemagne and the Franks when they came over into Italy, but the Lombards were not driven out. They stayed, but they had to acknowledge Charlemagne as their emperor and lord. After Charlemagne died, all Europe was in confusion for a time, and when there began to be emperors again, they were German emperors. Otto, the son of Henry the Fowler, was the first to call himself emperor, and he was crowned at Rome just as Charlemagne had been, and from that time on German emperors claimed to be kings of Italy as well as of their own native kingdom of Germany.

Sometimes the German emperors were too hard pressed keeping the peace in their own kingdom to pay much attention to Italy, and in those reigns the Lombard cities, which were the strongest cities in the whole land, got in the way of managing themselves and their neighbors as though there were no emperor at all. That was the way it was in the reign of Conrad, the uncle of the Frederick of our story, Frederick Barbarossa, or Frederick Red-beard, as he was called in history.

Frederick was not that kind of ruler. In the story of Charlemagne and Wittekind you saw that one man might seem to his own people a very wise ruler, but to the people whom for some reason he was trying to bring into his realm he might appear at the very same time a tyrant; which shows you that what we said in the beginning was true, that tyrants are not always bad men. Sometimes they are very good men, but for some mistaken reason they are trying to take away the rights of other people, and so the people resist them. That was what happened with Frederick. He was a brave king and a wise ruler and a chivalrous knight, and all the world holds him in honor, as you will when you have read about him in "Cavalier and Courtier"; but just now we are going to see how, through trying to keep his empire in order, he found himself for a little while taking away liberty from the Lombard cities. The first story that came to Frederick's court about the kingdom of Italy was that the big Lombard city of Milan was oppressing her smaller neighbors.

"I must go down and look after this kingdom of mine," said Frederick to himself, and with a great army he marched over the Brenner Pass and proceeded to the place where he had announced that he would meet his subjects, the vassals of the kingdom and the deputies of the cities. On the way a strange accident happened which began the trouble. It was the duty of every city to furnish to the emperor, whenever he might appear in its neighborhood, supplies for him and his companions, and guides to the places where he wished to go. The route by which Frederick chose to journey had lately been made barren by war, and the supplies which the city of Milan was trying to furnish fell short. It was only an accident. The Milanese had done their best to get together food for the army, but Frederick, remembering what he had heard of how Milan was oppressing her neighbors, thought it was an intentional slight, and on his way southward stopped to destroy two of her castles and to put Milan under the ban of the empire. When the Milanese came to beg for peace, he told them that they might have peace if they would give to him complete submission, so that he might govern their city as he pleased, appointing their officers. He had heard many stories of the way Milan was using her power over her neighbors, and he thought it best to make an example of the city. The Milanese refused, and Frederick declared them rebels.

He did not make war on them this time, but he came back two years later, and besieged the city and took it. This is the way the conquered people showed their submission. The whole population of the city formed a procession. First came the archbishops and clergy, bearing sacred vessels; then the nobles, barefoot and dressed in tattered garments, with their swords slung behind their backs, to show that they were using them no more; and last the common people, with ropes around their necks, to show that they were no longer free people. The long procession marched four miles from the city gates to the plain where Frederick was sitting crowned and in royal robes, waiting to receive their submission, and to take from their hands the keys of the city.


In the peace which was concluded that day, the Milanese thought that they were to have their city rights left to them. They were to appoint their own officers, subject to Emperor Frederick's approving them. What Frederick really understood we do not know. At any rate he sent men promptly to depose the officers chosen by the people and to put in his men, who were not Italians but Germans. When these foreigners began to govern the city, the Milanese rose up in rebellion, and before many weeks Frederick was called back to make war on them.

Again the greater force conquered. Frederick had called in the Italian neighbors of Milan, rival Lombard cities which were jealous of her power, and they had helped him. Once more, after many months of siege and starvation, the whole population marched out from the gates with ashes on their heads and ropes round their necks to prostrate themselves before their conqueror.

Frederick was more just than many kings of his time. He did not put his conquered people to death nor imprison them, but he decreed that the whole population should leave the city forever. They were to set themselves up in huts which they should build in four villages on the plains, and the men of the rival towns were to be called in to tear down the city. In six days not one stone remained upon another in what had been the fair-walled city of Milan.

Then Frederick went away to Germany, where his people needed him, and left German officers to govern the Lombards. They took no pains to make the yoke light. They oppressed the poor with taxes; they gave the people no share in the government; and life became intolerable to the freedom-loving Lombards. Their common suffering drew together the rival cities, which had never before been at peace. In the winter of 1167 a league was formed, which was the beginning of the famous Lombard League. The cities which came together in this league agreed that the first thing for them to do was to rebuild Milan and restore her citizens to their homes. On an April day the dwellers in the huts, which were all the homes that remained to the Milanese, looked out across the plain and saw horsemen coming with banners as if in battle array.

"What army is this," they said, "and what further evil is to befall us?"

When the troops came nearer to the poor villages the Milanese found that these were not enemies but friends, allies who had been their rivals until a common oppression by a foreigner had brought them together.

The Milanese joined the joyful procession and went with them to their ruined city. All set to work to restore first the moat and the city walls, for defense, and then the houses. The work went on with great enthusiasm. Women gave their jewels to adorn the restored churches, and in a short space of time Milan stood once more the central city of the Lombards.

It was seven years before Frederick was able to get the kingdom of Germany into order so that he was free enough from the enemies that beset his northern kingdom to come over and chastise these rebellious cities of his in Italy. During those years the Lombard League grew stronger, till at last thirty-six towns belonged to it.

Then Frederick came over with great armies, marching straight to Milan, where the allies gathered to meet him. In one of their wars for liberty a patriot of Milan had invented a military device which should serve as an inspiration to the army. This was a strong wagon built of iron, supporting an iron pole from the top of which floated the banner of the city, and was called the Carroccio. It was draped in scarlet cloth and drawn by eight white oxen selected for their size and beauty. The Carroccio was to be the center of the army. Around it were to be stationed the bravest warriors. To abandon it to the enemy was the extreme of disgrace. The Milanese had had to do this once. When Frederick destroyed the city, he ordered that the Carroccio be brought, and he himself tore away the fringe and scarlet cloth amid the lamentations of the people. Now it had been prepared again for his coming, and three hundred of the noblest youth of Milan had formed a company around it, swearing to die before they allowed the sacred emblem of the city to fall again into the hands of the conqueror.

The battle of Legnano was fought between the Germans and the Lombard League, and the Lombards were victorious. After the battle it was even thought for a time that Emperor Frederick had been killed, for he could not be found. The empress put on garments of mourning; but after a few days he reappeared from the mountains, to which he had been driven by his peril after the defeat. He had come to realize that the Lombard cities were not to be subdued by force of arms. A great Congress was held at Venice, at which a six years' truce was made between the emperor and his vassals; and by the Peace of Constance, agreed upon when the truce expired, Frederick solemnly granted to the Lombard cities the three things which they wanted and which were to them the symbols of liberty:

1. Liberty to make peace or war as an independent city with their neighbors.

2. Freedom from outside interference in the private government of the city.

3. Freedom from taxation to which they should not agree.

Having obtained these their cherished rights, the Lombard cities agreed to give to Emperor Frederick their allegiance, and to be in every other respect his vassals.

The Peace of Constance is a great liberty document, and the most beautiful part of the story remains to be told. There was never a peace more honorable to both sides, nor more honorably kept. Within a few years the Emperor Frederick came once again to visit Lombardy. He came as a loyal observer of the treaty to visit the free cities of his realm; he was received with loyal allegiance and cordial welcome by every city of Lombardy, even by Milan, which had been torn down and built again because of his coming. "I love to reward rather than to punish," was the word of the great emperor.